Depending on who you ask, the noble gases (Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, Radon, and the seldom seen Ununoctium, aka the inert gases, aka group 18 elements), are pretty boring. The noble gases have been described as being aristocratic, detached and aloof, never bothering to interact with the common elements, and in a very cool collection of anthropomorphized elements by Kaycie D, the most exciting thing that can be said for the noble gases is that “Krypton is commonly known for its role in Superman comics“. They have the maximum number of valence electrons in their outer shell, making them quite stable and unreactive. And while they conduct electricity and can fluoresce which is kind of exciting, they are odorless and colorless, which is kind of boring. However there are some people who find the noble gases to be quite interesting, namely, the Russians.
In Russia, the biological activity of Xenon (which is much greater than its chemical activity) lends itself to its use as an anesthetic. Xenon can also protect body tissues from the effects of low temperatures, lack of oxygen and even physical trauma. Low temperatures, lack of oxygen, and physical trauma are all things that can be associated with the Winter Olympics, and now so too can xenon. The head of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, Vladimir Uiba, proclaimed in a recent statement that there is nothing wrong with Russian athletes inhaling xenon to improve performance. In addition to the other properties of xenon, it also increases levels of erythropoietin (EPO), which is a hormone that encourages the formation of red blood cells. Artificially raising the levels of EPO is illegal under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) just ask Lance, but there are other “natural” ways of boosting the hormone, which are permissible under WADA, including training at altitudes and sleeping in a low oxygen tent, like the one enjoyed by Michael Phelps. Because inhalation of xenon is not on WADA’s radar (at least not yet) it has been given the blessing by Russian sporting federation, which has produced a manual and set of guidelines on the proper administration of the gas. According to The Economist the manual advises using xenon before competitions to correct listlessness and sleep disruption, and afterwards to improve physical recovery. The recommended dose is a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed. The gas’s action continues for 48-72 hours, so repeating every few days is a good idea. And for last-minute jitters, a quick hit an hour before the starting gun can help.
While there seems to be a strong case that xenon was used by the Russia Olympic team, medal count aside, it is unknown whether any other nations were using this not-illegal practice. It has been suggested that the use of xenon is something of an open secret in the sporting world, which might further suggest that more countries are tapping into this performance enhancer, but not the Brits anyway. So the question I am left with is, given the use of xenon is not that different from the use of an oxygen tent, is it OK to use Xe? To me something about the use of xenon just doesn’t smell right, which given its odorless nature, is saying a lot.